DRAGON SEED (director: Harold S. Bucquet/Jack Conway; screenwriter: from the novel by Pearl S. Buck; cinematographer: Sidney Wagner; editor: Harold F. Kress; music: Herbert Stothart; cast: Katharine Hepburn (Jade), Walter Huston (Ling Tan), Aline MacMahon (Mrs. Ling Tan), Akim Tamiroff (Wu Lien), Turhan Bey (Lao Er), Hurd Hatfield (Lao San), Frances Rafferty (Orchid), Agnes Moorehead (3rd Cousin’s Wife), Henry Travers (3rd Cousin), J. Carrol Naish (Japanese Kitchen Overseer), Benson Fong (Student), Philip Ahn (Leader of City People), Lionel Barrymore (Narrator), Robert Bice (Lao Ta); Runtime: 148; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pandro S. Berman; MGM; 1944)
“That Caucasian actors are cast in the primary Oriental roles greatly detracts from the film’s authenticity.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Dragon Seed is co-directed by Harold S. Bucquet and Jack Conway. This is MGM’s lavish follow-up to to the studio’s successful film version of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. It’s based on Buck’s 1942 novel. It received two Academy Award Nominations for Best Supporting Actress, Aline MacMahon, and for Best (Black-and-White) Cinematography, Sidney Wagner. The freewheeling plot has a heroic young Chinese woman, Jade (Katharine Hepburn), who goes dressed as a man to lead her fellow peaceful farmer villagers in an uprising against the Japanese invaders just prior to WWII. That Caucasian actors are cast in the primary Oriental roles greatly detracts from the film’s authenticity. Incidentally, the few Chinese cast in the film play Japanese roles (which can be explained away as it was filmed during wartime).
It opens in the spring of 1937 with patriarch Ling Tan (Walter Huston) and his family planting rice in the valley of Ling, China. Ling’s wife (Aline MacMahon) frets that their youngest son, Lao San (Hurd Hatfield), her husband’s favorite, is still single, while Ling’s middle son, Lao Er (Turhan Bey), doesn’t know how to stop his wife Jade from spending too much time away from home. He fears his wife might not be in love with him, and when confronted about this she owes up to her ambivalence toward him for his old-fashioned ways of keeping a woman in her place. When Lao Er tells her his deepest thoughts and after balking gives her permission to read, Jade instantly showers him with warm feelings. Since Jade is one of the few peasant women who can read, her educated merchant brother Wu Lien (Akim Tamiroff) suggests that she start with All Men Are Brothers.
The farmers are concerned about the recent Japanese invasion of the north, and take out their anger on Wu Lien–as an angry student mob insists that he stop selling Japanese merchandise or else. When he refuses their demands, they destroy his store.
Jade reveals to Lao Er that she is pregnant; soon after the farmers observe Japanese airplanes bombing the nearby city. The pacifist Ling is shocked by the attack, but along with Lao San and eldest son Lao Ta (Robert Bice) decide to remain on their farm despite the anticipated dangers of a Japanese invasion. While Lao Er and Jade join a resistance group of refugees in the hills. Upon their departure the Japanese Army takes over the valley, and Lao Ta’s wife Orchid is raped and killed by the invading soldiers, who also kill Wu Lien’s elderly mother. Ling and his wife remain secure as they go into hiding. This cruelty drives the remaining sons of Ling to join the resistance. Meanwhile Wu Lien has sold out to the Japanese and becomes the local leader of the new Japanese-controlled government.
Those in occupied China face critical situations such as slave labor, hunger and disease, as Lao Er and Jade return from the hills to fight the Japanese with a local resistance effort and use Ling’s house as their home base. The melodramatics concern how to deal with a traitorous Third Cousin’s wife (Agnes Moorehead) who betrays Jade’s hiding place to Wu Lien and how to stop her brother from informing the Japanese. In the conclusion, Ling must accept that he must destroy his land so that he can sacrifice his present gains to ensure the future of his grandson. When Jade and hubby rejoin the resistance fighters in the hills to ensure a Free China, they leave their son the, “seed of the dragon,” in the care of his loving grandparents.
The effective family value wartime drama clearly shows that turning the other cheek might not be the best way to handle aggressors. It remains strangely compelling despite being overlong and the western actors though competently performing their roles are never convincing.
REVIEWED ON 7/28/2006 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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